“The difference between a broken community and a thriving one is the presence of woman who are valued.” – Michelle Obama
For decades, charity in the Developing World has centred on Western generosity funding infrastructure and poverty alleviation. It’s easy to see the needs in our world: clean water, food security, access to sanitation and education…but for all our aid and welfare support, the returns have been far ‘poorer’ than expected. Not only has the gap increased between the rich and the poor, but the poor have become poorer.
And now, in the 21st Century, we wonder what we can do differently? How can we champion and contribute to those living in poverty in ways that are sustainable, respectful (of people and culture) and empowering?
My first lesson was understanding the many faces of poverty. Economic and physical indicators are far easier to see, photograph and measure. We talk about numbers of children immunised, operations performed, wells built, small business started, children in school and growth in dollars earned per day.
But in many ways, they are the face of poverty but not its heart.
And addressing and celebrating changes in these numbers reassure us that we are making a difference – yet they also act to sedate us to other more sinister indicators of poverty: self-worth, self-determination, social isolation, political exclusion, and domestic violence.
If we offer schooling, even higher education, but don’t provide entrepreneurial and personal development training, then most graduates will leave unemployed and disillusioned. If women start and build small businesses but remain outsiders in family and community decision making, then they gain responsibility without power. If we provide community training and infrastructure without connecting the poor to others, then they remain alone. The harshest of conditions.
It is not the needs that are difficult to identify but the method. The process. The approach. We have learned of the need for consultation and delegated decision making, for indigenous organisations to lead the community engagement and development of strategy, and for starting with an objective of sustainable development. An impact or outcome that lasts well after activity stops.
But Foxglove believes in another important element. That addressing poverty means engaging the women of a community. In much of the Developing World, women are secondary citizens. Marginalised and excluded. But something wonderful happens when women make their way to the centre. They become connectors, share resources and knowledge, call for change that benefits others and address issues of children and human rights.
I was reminded of this on a recent visit to Rwanda when meeting with a woman who in the last nine months has helped form and now leads a Federation overseeing 2500 of the district’s poorest women in Self Help Groups. The Self Help Groups (SHGs) connect 20 women together for life. They gain a social cohesion and belonging that changes their place in the community. They start small businesses that enable them to support their own families with basic and higher-level needs. They join village committees as leaders and decision-makers. They take up a role as empowered and contributing members of their community and they could be forgiven for seeing the Federation as a way to advance their own needs and position. But when I ask Virginie about the current goal of the Federation, her response could not be more different,
“We have a goal to change the way children are treated in our community. Before we joined the SHG and took part in trainings, we didn’t know that we were mistreating our children. Sometimes we were hurting them and other times we were neglecting them. Now we understand. Now we plan to find ways to educate our community and our schools about the rights and care of children. We will not stop until this is done.”
I thought of my meeting with Virginie when reading this quote from Michelle Obama,
“The difference between a broken community and a thriving one is the presence of woman who are valued.”
On this International Day of Charity, let us acknowledge that the act of doing good can be based on more than good intentions and visual outcomes. It has the ability to bring out the capacity in people that they might live fulfilled empowered lives, both serving and changing their communities.
To read more about how Foxglove is engaging the poorest women through the Self Help Group approach, please visit our Grassroots Rwanda page.